Image from Flickr user: Ryan Somma
“Many Decisions Lie Ahead. None of them Easy.” Looking back, it seems like Mass Effect could have easily been very different from what was released back in November 2007. Watching this trailer conjures mental images of a game filled with jaw-clenching life or death choices. “Who will you save? Which planets will you leave to their fate?” it seems to ask. In the beginning, this is the game we thought we were getting: high stakes and high consequences in a sprawling galaxy where you couldn’t possibly save everyone. Of course, that’s not what we got. Arguably, there were very few difficult decisions to be had (just one in fact). Such far-reaching choices would have been incredible, but I suppose it was never meant to be. We did get something else though, something that may have wound being better than such choices in the end.
There’s always a balance that must be struck in developing a game, and I think it’s safe to say that game-makers aren’t so eager to pour time and energy into things that many players likely won’t see. So while we didn’t get a galaxy filled with planets and characters that we could choose to leave behind, we did get a galaxy that felt alive. The galaxy felt big; featuring over a dozen alien species, each with their own mannerisms, political structures, history, skills, biases, and unique relationships to the other species. Each main world was memorable and distinct from the others, laid out in a fashion that actually resembled real, livable, purposely-planned spaces rather than poorly disguised shooting galleries. It was apparent that no matter where you went, there was more going on that just the main plot points. In fact at time it felt like the main story was only a small part of what was going on in the world. I can’r wonder if it would have been the same had some of those worlds been made somehow expendable at one point, but am glad we don’t have to find out.
As fleshed out and vast as the world was though, it still wasn’t the star of the show was it? No. The real reason Mass Effect worked its way into our hearts and stayed there was our loyal crew! Personally, never before had I met game characters that actually felt like real people. I really do mean, “met” too. Not “seen”. not simply “encountered”. Met. These weren’t the cardboard cut-out, plain-vanilla, as-much-depth-as-a-piece-of-paper “characters” we’ve all seen before in countless games and badly-written cartoons. They had depth. They each had distinct personalities, with their own goals, regrets, flaws, and perspectives, born from the “lives” they’d led before meeting up with our intrepid Commander Shepard. In short, they felt like people. People who fought, suffered, and grew right alongside our Shepard. More than the “major” choices that affected the plot, it was the smaller ones that gave us pause, the ones that shaped our own Shepard’s personal narrative and would potentially impact the crew that had accompanied us. We as Shepard were given the power to influence them, convincing them of the virtues of mercy and diplomacy or of the cold efficiency of the ends justifying the means. (we wouldn’t find out until later that our influence on them is effectively nullified between each game). The outcome was that many of us found ourselves actually caring about what happened to our crew-members, ( the ones we liked anyway) making the parts of the game that focused on them or on potentially losing them much more impactful and memorable than they otherwise would or should have been.
Mass Effect made so far on this list precisely because of the impact it left on those that played it. It didn’t do everything well; the shooter gameplay was basic, and the interface was not pretty to say the least. I’m told piloting the Mako was horrible too, though honestly I don’t know how that could be. (I could make that tank dance, man!) What it got right though: the universe, the worlds, and the characters especially, it knocked-right out of the park and set it as the new standard for how to go about doing such things.
Mass Effect was the game that set the standard for character-driven story in games, one that only its sequels have managed to match thus far. So I say it more than earns this prestigious #4 spot!
(One more thing: I’m curious about everyone’s experience with the Mako. Was it really that bad?)